Amid the madness of this coaching hiring cycle in college football, Notre Dame acted sensibly.
Athletic director Jack Swarbrick didn’t pay massive dollars to buy a high-profile coach out of his contract elsewhere. He didn’t commit additional dollars on a megacontract to woo that coach.
Instead he promoted a rising star, defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, to replace departed Brian Kelly. He also locked in offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to remain on board.
Freeman, 35, previously served as defensive coordinator under Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell – himself a rising coaching star and the likely future recipient of an insane money from a bigger-name school.
So what was Swarbrick thinking? Well, Notre Dame is Notre Dame. It doesn’t need to hire a high-profile coach to attract players. It’s Notre Dame, so it attracts players.
Swarbrick was pleased with the state of the current football operation and he felt no need to go in a different direction. And he saw tremendous leadership potential in Freeman, who seemed destined to be a head coach somewhere soon.
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So why not take that step at Notre Dame, which coaches are set up to succeed?
Writing for Yahoo! Sports, Pete Thamel explored this topic:
The first place to point to for Freeman’s hiring would be connection. As Notre Dame officials entered the hiring process, a few things stood out as they surveyed the players about the head coach position moving forward. Notre Dame players were protective of the culture they’d built in recent years, as Notre Dame has gone 44-6 the past four years.
That stretch features a slew of players proud of what they built, and there’s a sense that next season could again be College Football Playoff-caliber, as there’s expected to be a higher talent level than this 2021 team. The players made clear they weren’t keen on someone coming in, ripping apart what had been built and installing an entirely new culture and infrastructure.
It'd be too simplistic to say the players wanted Freeman and that’s why he became the hire. But the quality of relationships he built with all the players in the program in less than a year cannot be overlooked. Freeman’s bond transcended the defense, an important detail in his hiring. Freeman made an effort to build strong relationships with players on the offensive side of the ball, a tricky task as he ingratiated himself in the program. That resonated with Notre Dame decision makers, especially because individual connection was never deemed a strength of Kelly by the Irish players.
Notre Dame is a place that's awash in its own lore, and Freeman endeared himself to Notre Dame officials with his ability to identify and accentuate why Notre Dame is distinctly different than blue bloods like Alabama, USC and Ohio State. Freeman quickly showed an intuitive understanding of how to leverage the unique aspects of Notre Dame — academics, tradition, alumni connections — as an advantage.
MYSTERIES OF THE UNIVERSE
Questions to ponder while wondering if the Missouri Tigers will manage to win 10 basketball games this season:
- Will the Blues be forced to shut down as COVID-19 spreads through the team?
- Will MLB bring locked out players to their knees by removing all references to them on its website?
- With ticket sales potentially on hold for months, can fans look forward to steep discounts once this nonsense ends?
THE GRIDIRON CHRONICLES
Here is what folks are writing about college football:
Dan Wolken, USA Today: “Coaches change jobs all the time, and desperate schools do desperate things this time of year. But for Kelly to leave Notre Dame high and dry when his team still has a chance to win a national championship is both something we’ve never really seen in college football and a rubicon crossed that takes the sport down a perilous path. How does anyone continue to pretend that this is amateur sports when a multi-million dollar coach leaves his players in the lurch while they could still end up playing for history? How does anyone take the sanctity of the College Football Playoff seriously when it means so little to Kelly that he high-tails it out of town before he even knows whether his team gets in?”
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: “Since leaving the side of former boss and mentor Nick Saban in 2016, Kirby Smart has led his alma mater to an unprecedented level of success, even for a place as rich in college football tradition as Georgia. In six seasons, Smart's Dawgs have won 64 games, four SEC East division titles, an SEC championship and a 4-2 postseason record that includes wins in the Rose and Sugar bowls. His team is currently ranked No. 1 in the land and is riding a 16-game winning streak, one shy of a program record set from 1945 to 1947. They enter Saturday's SEC title game as 6.5-point favorites over Alabama, the first time the Tide has been officially listed as an underdog in more than six years.”
Tom Fornelli, CBSSports.com: “Teams are like people. They'll tell you who they are if you listen to them and see what they do. Alabama has been telling you what it is all season long, but a lot of people don't want to hear it. Alabama is an excellent team. It's one of the best teams in the country, capable of beating anybody. But it's not a dominant Alabama team. It's not up to the same standard as many Alabama teams we've seen win national titles. That's why Nick Saban was so frustrated with fans before the Iron Bowl, and it's why he was so happy and relieved when the Tide squeaked by with a win. I can't recall a Crimson Tide team in this dynasty era that's been less physically dominant on the offensive line. It showed up early in the season in a close win over Florida and was exposed in the loss to Texas A&M. It made more appearances in close calls against LSU, Arkansas and Auburn. Now, that offensive line is going against the best defense and front seven in the country, and I don't like its chances of holding up. Nor do I think the Alabama defense, which has not been great, is capable of slowing down the Georgia offense enough to stay as close as they need.”
Connor O’Gara, Saturday Down South: “Three games, 3 second-half leads, 3 losses. Zero 4th quarter points, zero moral victories, zero actual victories. Those are the stats that define Kirby Smart’s 3 attempts to beat Nick Saban. Of course, those aren’t the only stats. How about the fact that in 180 minutes of football against Saban — not including overtime in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship — Smart led for 98 minutes and 55 seconds. Compare that to Saban, who only led for 31 minutes and 28 seconds against Smart. But when you have a 31-0 advantage in those 3 4th quarters, well, that’s the type of thing you can overcome if you’re the G.O.A.T. like Saban. Saturday’s SEC Championship is different from the previous 3 matchups. For the first time, Smart arguably has the better team. Georgia is favored. It’s the first time Alabama has been an underdog in a game since the 2015 matchup against Georgia. That day, ironically enough, Smart’s Alabama defense stymied Mark Richt and the Dawgs en route to a 38-10 victory in Athens. That blowout signaled the beginning of the end for the Richt era. It’s been 14 years since Georgia took down Alabama. As long as that streak looms over Smart, there will always be that ‘yeah, but.’ Irrelevant for Smart is the likely possibility that his team has a Playoff berth clinched, win or lose against Alabama. There’s no denying that Georgia has been the best team in the sport this year. It’s the first team to hold each of its first 12 opponents to 17 points or fewer since Brian Bosworth’s 1986 Oklahoma defense accomplished that feat. This Georgia team, this version of Smart, this has to be different.”
Pete Fiutak, College Football News: “Alabama was second on this list last week and throughout most of the process because 1) it’s in with a 12-1 SEC Championship run and 2) there was some thought that it could get in at 11-2 with a close loss to Georgia. If Bama had annihilated Auburn and went on to lose to Georgia in a classic, it would’ve been an interesting debate in a four-best-team sort of way that the Fighting Sabans should get in over 13-0 Cincinnati or maybe even a 12-1 Big 12 Champion. Now, never put it past the College Football Playoff committee to invoke the Because It’s Alabama clause that’s not written down anywhere, but hovers over the room in Grapevine, Texas, but nah. Alabama loses, it’s going to be out unless both Michigan and Baylor lose their respective Power Five championships. In that case, there’s a shot. Cincinnati – if it beats Houston – and Notre Dame would be mortal locks, and then Oregon would probably be the call if it beats Utah in the Pac-12 Championship, but … Alabama is in if it beats Georgia. Anything else with a loss is an almost certain no.”
“We don't focus on history. I think every team is independent of the previous, so it is what it is, and our guys have got to go out and play well. What happened in those games will be of no relevance to this game. I think anybody with good coaching sense would tell you that.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart, on another showdown with Alabama.